In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Jennie Babisch (left) and Anna Fitzsimmons are outstanding actors at First Stage. (PHOTO: Paul Ruffalo)

Two Elizabets and the future looks bright for Milwaukee theater

They couldn't be more different, but inside it's almost as if they have the same beating heart.

Jennie Babisch is 16 and a sophomore at Nicolet High School. Anna Fitzsimmons is 14 and in eighth grade at University School.

Jennie is tall and strong with shining brown hair and a pair of glasses which make her look awfully smart. Anna is small with wispy black hair and braces that make her look, well, awfully smart, too.

While different in appearance and experience, they are both actors. And that fact alone is important to anyone who is in love with theater in Milwaukee. These two are the next generation of actors – and judging by their work on stage, we can all be confident that the future is in good hands.

Jennie and Anna are each playing the same role, Elizabet, in the First Stage production of "Robin Hood." Words can't do justice to how wonderful each is. It's the same character, but each one of them has found different aspects of Elizabet, and each creates a character who is different in each production.

First Stage alternates the youth actors in productions, not only giving more young performers an opportunity but also benefiting the audience with differing approaches to the same play.

Anna Fitzsimmons with Tommy Novak in "Robin Hood." (PHOTO: Paul Ruffalo)

"I started acting in second grade," Anna said, as she joined Jennie in an interview at First Stage. "I remember auditioning at First Stage, and my first role was in 'Five Little Monkeys.' I was the littlest monkey."

For Jennie, it took longer to get going.

"I started doing First Stage in about sixth grade," she said. "But my real acting career didn't start totally until I entered my freshman year. The first stage show I did at First Stage was 'Comedy of Errors.'"

That first performance spawned a love of Shakespeare, unusual in someone so young.

"I really like Shakespeare," she said. "I lug around a book of his works that I read all the time. I think I've probably hit some people with it."

Jennie Babisch with Tommy Novak in "Robin Hood." (PHOTO: Paul Ruffalo)

Both of these girls have well-defined ideas about the theater in general and acting specifically. They are also remarkably mature in their viewpoints.

"I think taking on someone who isn't yourself and finding the views and stepping into someone else's shoes is a very cool thing to experience," Jennie said. "And just not being yourself for an hour on stage is really fun. There is an opportunity to not just inspire other kids to be creative but to make them believe that they can make art. Acting as an art form is something not too many people think about. I want to make other young people think that this is something that they can do at their age."

For Anna, it seems as if the communal part of performing in the theater is a big draw.

"I really like the people involved in theater," she said. "The cast and crew are very special, outgoing and nice and kind. And the people who come to see the shows. First Stage's motto is 'Transforming Lives Through Theater.' I really believe that for the young people who see the shows this is an opportunity to change lives for the better. I think it's really a special opportunity to perform for other kids."

These two girls also are coming close to understanding and embracing the kind of hard work that goes into being a good actor. Listen to their conversation about Elizabet, a poor young girl who wants nothing more than to join Robin Hood and be one of the Merry Men.

"Really trying to dig deep into a character can be a challenge and a gift, because it's so easy to play a character as a stereotype, with just one of their characteristics," Anna said. "Take Elizabet. She is so intricate."

"Like it's easy to think of her as the quirky girl with the nets," Jennie added. "But so much in her life has led up to her wanting to join the merry men, and she's nervous about it.

"I think that Elizabet is nervous that she's not gonna make it or that she's going to embarrass herself forever. So she tries to put on this facade that I'm super confident, I'm poor, I have nets I'm cool and stuff. I can make food. She's also got this thing about, 'Oh, my God, I've got to impress these people.'"

Both of these actors want to keep theater as a part of their lives as they grow into adults. Jennie wants to be an actor, while Anna wants to get into high school before deciding what to do with her life, but she maintains she wants theater to always be a part of her life.

"I think it's flattering that people will pay money to (watch a play) – they don't know if it's good or not – and have faith in us as actors that they will see something that's worthwhile," Jennie said. "I think they do."

"The motto at First Stage," she added. "'I take risks. I conquer my fears.' That's not just specific to theater. That's specific to life. It's about growing and changing as a person."

These two young actors have obviously grown and changed, and I am full of confidence and hope that they will be a part of the theatrical landscape in Milwaukee for a long time to come.


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